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The History of the Pottery Wheel
The Potter's Wheel, which seems to us so elementary, is one of the earliest applications of a mechanical principle to an industrial process, making for greater speed and efficiency.
In human history it deserves comparison with the machine developments of the Industrial Revolution.
Like the still earlier advent of metallurgy, the invention of the potter's wheel was a step towards eliminating the family as an economic unit which was self-contained, producing its own food, its own clothing and its own household equipment for daily life. In fact, special craftsmen were now coming to the fore, who lived by exchanging their manufactures for the surplus food grown by the rest of the community.
Significantly the wheel spread at first from its original home, which was Mesopotamia, only to those societies which were more or less urbanized; it did not become the stock-in-trade of less advanced cultures until nearly 4,000 years after its invention.
The History of the Pottery Wheel
Its presence in Mesopotamia in the early fourth millennium B.C. has been inferred with absolute certainty from the character of the pots recovered in the 'Uruk' occupation levels in the ancient city mounds of Sumeria; and it appears that the potter's wheel and the earliest wheeled vehicles emerged together more or less, the wheel of the vehicles perhaps suggesting the potter's wheel. By 3000 B.C. wheel-made pottery had become universal in Mesopotamian cultures, whence it was diffused eastward to the cities of the Indus valley, and north-west into Syria and Anatolia. It appears in the second city at Troy before 2000 B.C. In Egypt, perhaps because the ease of water transport discouraged the early development of wheeled vehicles, the potter's wheel is a late arrival; it was not certainly in established use until the Old Kingdom, in the Third Dynasty, i.e., about the middle of the third millennium B.C.
In essence this wheel is no more than a circular platform mounted for free revolution. The most primitive type, known also as a 'tournette', consisted of a disc, probably of baked clay, on a vertical pivot. It could be rotated only by turning the disc itself, a task which had either to be done by the potter (which left him only one hand free to work his clay) or by an assistant. This 'slow-wheel' probably persisted, as it did in Egypt, for a great while, but it was replaced in time by the 'fast wheel', in which the wheel itself was not directly revolved. Power was supplied either by the potter or his assistant, the potter working a treadle with his left foot or turning with the ball of his left foot a second disc fitted to the pivot, more or less at ground level. A more sophisticated device relieved the potter of this heavy work; his assistant turned by handle an independent wheel mounted vertically in a frame, and the power was conveyed to the pivot of the potter's wheel by an endless belt.
Before the wheel came into use, pots were all built up by hand, normally by the women of the household. It was a slow, laborious job. Handmade pots lacked such fine symmetry, and it was impossible to fashion walls of a uniform thickness. Hand-made vases in antiquity depended far more on the design of prototypes in other materials - gourds, leather vessels, wooden containers. So the invention of the wheel 'released' the potter; he was stimulated and freed of limitations, and it was the wheel which established aesthetic standards for pots as pots, not as imitations of something else. The use of the wheel does not end with 'throwing' or shaping the pot. When the surplus water has dried out, the pot goes back to the wheel for 'turning', the potter working on the surface with special tools to make it perfectly regular, to produce mouldings and perhaps to polish or burnish it. Potter's shops painted on Greek vases make it clear that the wheel was also employed in the painting of vessels. A paint-charged brush was held against the revolving pot. Many Mycenaean vases and Cy-priot vases of the geometric period are decorated with encircling bands of paint so regular that they must have been applied on the wheel, sometimes with a multiple brush.
Making very large vases presents special difficulties to the potter, who gets his best results by building the big vessels up in sections, each one of which is thrown separately on the wheel. The sections are dried, stuck together with slip (diluted clay) and 'turned' on the wheel to smooth over the joins. To assemble such a vessel depends on measuring each section very accurately. Greek potters used the method. Their Archaic and Classical Attic masterpieces, so superbly proportioned, make it certain that they worked from a 'blueprint' design elaborated beforehand.
One should add that the potter's wheel had reached the Greek mainland in the Middle Bronze Age (it had found its way to Crete, where it was in use soon after 2000 B.C., either from Egypt or Anatolia). Wheel-made pottery from Mycenae was being distributed over a large part of the Mediterranean and Levantine world in the latter half of the second millennium B.C. The break-up of the Bronze Age world, which affected the central and eastern Mediterranean at the end of the second millennium, greatly slowed down the spread of the potter's wheel in Europe; Greek, Etruscan and Phoenician colonists eventually diffused it through the Mediterranean, and at last it penetrated north into Europe, though not until the Iron Age was well advanced. For example, in Britain there is not a sign of wheel-made pottery before the Belgae arrived from the Continent and settled in south-east Britain about 75 B.C., using wheel pottery of a very distinctive type.
Wheel-made pots only became general in Britain after the Romans had imposed their imperial cultural unity. Even so, the Dark Ages that follow the collapse of the Western Empire set back the clock in this as in much else; in Britain, pottery became very much scarcer, and a high proportion of it, once more, was made without a wheel.